Jonathon Porritt holds media to account over climate change coverage

THE media has failed to convey a true picture of climate change and its implications, renowned environmentalist Jonathon Porritt told a Bristol audience of journalists and members of the public at the University of Bristol.

The director of thinktank Forum for the Future and former director of Friends of the Earth was giving the Benn Lecture 2015, an annual event held by the Bristol branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

The event has previously featured national figures such as Tony Benn. Mr Porritt, who was invited to mark Bristol’s year as European Green Capital, took as his theme: Climate Change: Let’s Blame the Media?

The environmentalist made it clear he does not hold the media responsible for the global lack of action on global warming; but he does believe it has misrepresented and downplayed the issue.

Even the BBC, he said, falls victim to the false notion that it must “balance” reporting of the scientifically-assessed risks of climate change with the views of a non-scientist such as former chancellor Nigel Lawson – as happened on a much-criticised slot on the Today programme in 2014.

In a world where 98.3 per cent of scientists in the field concur with the consensus on the human causes of climate change, said Mr Porritt, how do you properly reflect that balance against the tiny minority of relevant scientists who disagree?

“The way the BBC does it is to give them [the tiny minority] 50 per cent of the time,” he said.

“We end up with some of the most extraordinarily esteemed scientists doing media interviews with people like Nigel Lawson. I suppose that Nigel Lawson is better than Jeremy Clarkson,” said Mr Porritt, “but there’s not much in it.”

Sadly, he went on, the BBC has been most at fault in this area. Because of its public service duty it has gone to great lengths not to be seen as partisan on this issue.

Things have been a little better at the BBC in 2015  –”but not good enough for me to be generous in my comments on the BBC.”

The reality of climate change is so enormous that the media struggle to convey it.

“The climate change story is beyond our ken for the average human mind,” he said. It relates to so many different timescales, so many difficult science issues and so many governmental and social science issues.

“There is literally nothing else like climate change when it comes to trying to make sense of our lives today.

“It is different, it has the possibility of jeopardising human life or at the very least human civilisation.”

Luckily, he went on, there is a scientific response to it that is also unique. “The International Panel on Climate Change is not much loved in the world of politics but it’s an extraordinary response using the power of science to help people understand what’s going on.”

He cited a recent scientific paper on Syria which traced the impact of severe drought from 2006 to 2010, which led to mass migration to the nation’s cities, causing social unrest which led to a government clampdown, then to civil war and the current refugee crisis which threatens European cohesion.

This means, said Mr Porritt, that science is saying that climate change can be held partly responsible for one of the greatest crises in democratic history. And this in the very early stages of what climate change is going to do to us.

Yet the story received little attention. “The media hardly knew how to unpack this.” And even in government circles this was described as an ‘environmental’ story. “How can that be?” asked Mr Porritt,

Part of the problem is that the media has been allowed to present climate change as a story for the greenies, not for those concerned about the wider issues of national security, the shape of the global economy, or the changing balance of wealth between north and south, east and west.

Most editors know next to nothing about climate change, he said. That’s not true of many journalists and environment correspondents, but they often have many other responsibilities to juggle.

And so we have normalised the flow of climate change stories that come crashing into our in-boxes at a rate we can hardly believe.

He described how the citizens of Vancouver were surveyed for their reactions to a range of stories about climate change – about a Canadian carbon tax, about the IPCC, about the campaign 350.org, and about a local anti-coal campaigner.

They reacted badly to all the stories except the one about their local campaigner. They believed him – but they saw all the other institutions attempting to communicate with them about climate change as remote, corrupt, boring, irrelevant and ineffective.

“We don’t connect with people – we don’t know how,” said Mr Porritt.

Yet it appears that the new Pope, in his encyclical on climate change, is connecting with many people, and has succeeded in placing climate change as a huge ethical issue that cannot be ignored.

I have known a lot of journalists for 40 years, he said, and now many of them fear so much for their jobs that it prevents them from seeking to find the right way to present climate change to their readers and listeners.

Mr Porritt described Climate Gate, when leaked emails were used to undermine the credibility of climate scientists, as “a deliberate and calculated attack on some of the most important scientists addressing climate change.”

The attack was, he said, “motivated and coordinated by right wing ideologues who have one purpose, to diminish and destroy the reputation of the scientists involved.”

Most UK journalists who covered the story sat on the fence and did not in any way attempt to tease out the credentials those involved in the attack; instead they teased out the credentials of those involved in the science.”

Part of the problem is the immense power of the few wealthy people who control much of the media, he said. “They have become the enemy of anything that journalism might be held to stand for.”

Directing some of his anger at the Times and Telegraph – “I’m not bothering to mention the Mail and Express, because what’s the point?” – he said journalists have been cowed into toeing an editorial line that says responsible climate change coverage “is not what we stand for at this particular newspaper.”

“I know a lot of these journalists,” he said.

“Why is it that climate change is seen as a left wing issue?”

After prolonged applause, Mr Porritt took questions. Among them was one from Alon Aviram of Bristol Cable, the city’s co-operative news magazine and website.

He challenged Mr Porritt’s assertion that journalists were failing to engage readers in the local aspects of climate change. The Cable, he said has exposed investments in fossil fuels by organisations which might be expected to know better – such as the University of Bristol.

Mr Porritt said he was all for such exposés.

Another questioner said she consumed very little news from mainstream sources, and her children got absolutely all their input from social media. Couldn’t this new tool be used to spread the right message on climate change, she said?

Yes it could, said Mr Porritt, but don’t forget that social media is open to manipulation – the Climate Gate scandal saw responsible scientists hounded on social media.

The event, on October 29, was organised by Bristol NUJ and Bristol Festival of Ideas and hosted by Bristol University’s Cabot Institute.

A video of the evening will be posted as soon as it is available. The film was made by journalism students from the University of the West of England.

 

 

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